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The next turn in the Net-cash saga

Consumer watchdog Brian Livingston says that while stepped-up rivalry between competitors vying to set a Net-cash standard may confuse consumers and business owners, the upshot will be more choice.

When one Internet company sues another, the results may not always work out the way the aggrieved party expected.

That seems to be what happened when CheckFree, a company that specializes in banking services for consumer online bill-paying, sued CheckSpace, a start-up that offers electronic payment services for businesses.

CheckFree filed suit in January, claiming that the name CheckSpace was "unfair competition." CheckSpace's executives decided to switch rather than fight, but the battle inspired them to come up with a service CheckFree couldn't match.

CheckSpace representatives confirmed in a telephone interview that the company will announce next week a new name: Fidesic, which rhymes with "geodesic." The techie-sounding moniker--sort of a nom de geek--is based on linguistic roots that mean "a trusted area."

More important than the name change, however, Fidesic is expected to announce new services that promise to make the money-chase a little easier for harried financial executives.

At its simplest level, one new feature of a service called Print-to-Web allows a business to send payments to several recipients after merely typing their names and the payment amounts into a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet. The business disburses the money by simply printing the spreadsheet. Instead of routing the data to a printer, however, Fidesic's Print-to-Web software captures the print output and sends the relevant financial information to a Fidesic Internet server. This server follows access rules set by the business to process the payments.

For corporations with up to $50 million in annual revenue, Fidesic will also announce next week a module that performs the same "print" function within Great Plains Software, the accounting package acquired this year by Microsoft. Previously announced modules work within Intuit's QuickBooks and Peachtree's Complete Accounting.

The data formats of programs like QuickBooks are kept secret, making it difficult for third parties to offer integrated systems. This led CheckSpace to develop Print-to-Web, which exploits the fact that every accounting package must have the capability to print physical invoices, checks and so forth.

Fidesic's new services are likely to cause CheckFree some headaches as it attempts to expand from consumer bill-paying services into programs for small and medium-sized businesses.

Over 4 million individuals pay bills online through software CheckFree sells to banks. But the company is under pressure from a new service, Spectrum, which is owned by the banks themselves, led by Chase Manhattan, First Union and Wells Fargo.

CheckFree announced in November a new offering, WebPay for Small Business. But even though the bill-paying service is designed to be marketed by banks, not a single one has signed up, according to a company representative.

"We're going back to all of the banks that use our products and talking about the new product," said Jim Majors, CheckFree's senior vice president of product management. "We haven't had any financial institutions implement it yet."

Paul Jamieson, a financial analyst with Gomez, said "CheckSpace enables users to send invoices and bills as an integrated function of their system, as opposed to a separate service as offered by CheckFree." He described CheckSpace's approach as "a superior offering to CheckFree's WebPay."

No one believes that CheckFree will become a dot-gone, but the feisty Fidesic has already cost it some valuable resources.

Prior to the trademark lawsuit, CheckFree last year acquired TransPoint, an electronic payment competitor that had been owned by Microsoft and others.

Today, CheckSpace's 45 employees include five to 10 who left TransPoint, and an equal number who bailed out of Microsoft, according to Bassam Saliba, CheckSpace's chief technology officer. Saliba himself was a TransPoint group manager.

Consumers and business owners alike may be forgiven for wondering what Net-cash standard will emerge out of all the competing brands. But we can be thankful for at least one thing--it looks like there'll be plenty of choices.

Brian Livingston's Wired Watchdog column appears at CNET News.com every Friday. Do you know of a problem affecting consumers? Send info to tips@BrianLivingston.com. He'll send you a book of high-tech secrets free if you're the first to submit a tip he prints.